April 23, 2020

Interesting times

I don’t know if it’s authentic, but supposedly there’s an ancient Chinese curse that goes, “May you live in interesting times.”

(According to the late British author Terry Pratchett, there are two related curses. One is, “May you come to the attention of those in authority,” and the other is, “May the gods give you everything you ask for.” He wasn’t sure about the authenticity of those either.)

At any rate, our time is getting a bit too interesting for my preferences. It’s very rarely a good thing when a historical event on a global scale comes knocking on the door. I’m thinking of things like the decision to invade Iraq, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Serbia in 1914 — not that I was around for all the above.

I’m reminded of a quote about history by the great German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who spoke of it as “the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of States, and the virtue of individuals have been victimized ... .”

Now that’s a cheery thought.

I think it’s interesting that the ancient Greeks had two words for historical time, chronos and kairos. Chronos referred to ordinary, not-too-interesting times — business as usual. Kairos meant a special time of challenge, crisis or decision. In the New Testament, for example, when Jesus said things like “the time is fulfilled” (Mark 1:15) or “my time is not yet come” (John 7:6), the word was kairos.

If there ever was a time of kairos, this is one.

Another word of Greek origin comes to mind, as well: apocalypse. Contrary to common usage, the word itself has nothing to do with the end of the world. Rather, it means something like uncovering, revealing or lifting the veil.

I’m hoping this crisis has lifted the veil on the world we live in. It has revealed that the real heroes who keep everything going aren’t hedge fund managers, CEOs or billionaires, but the helpers, retail workers, drivers, etc., who often work for low wages and no benefits. That needs to change.

It has revealed that health care, investments in public health and paid sick days aren’t luxuries or utopian notions, but necessities.

It has revealed the bankruptcy of an ideology that worships markets and the private sector while disparaging public goods and services, reasonable regulations and democratic and accountable governance.

It has revealed that entrusting government to those who believe government can’t do anything doesn’t bring about good government.

It has revealed that we ignore science to our peril.

And it’s a reminder that we need to pay more attention to the natural world we depend on — before it pays more attention to us.

Hegel also said, “What experience and history teach is this — that peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”

For all our sakes, I hope he’s wrong about that.

(This appeared as an op-ed in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

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